Yemen limbo: Less bombing doesn't mean more aid

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Petrol stations have been hit by airstrikes, increasing shortages © Almigdad Mojalli/IRIN

By Almigdad Mojalli and Joe Dyke

SANA'A, 22 April 2015 (IRIN) - Bombs may not be falling on the Yemeni capital Sana’a, but aid isn’t exactly pouring in either. After almost a month of airstrikes, millions of Yemeni civilians are anxiously watching and waiting, wondering what this new stage in the conflict means for them.

The United Nations is working with Saudi Arabian-led coalition forces on a scheme to get aid in, and humanitarian agencies desperate to reach those in need are preparing in case the situation improves, but little has actually changed on the ground.

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday evening that the four-week aerial bombardment of Yemen, known as Operation Decisive Storm, was to end and be replaced by Operation Restoring Hope.

Hours later, at midnight, silence finally fell on Sana’a. But it has been left devastated by a sustained bombing campaign targeting the many military depots, airfields and other installations around the capital.

The Saudi-led coalition is seeking to oust pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who claimed control of Sana’a in September. President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, still recognised by the international community, fled the country last month for the Saudi capital Riyadh.

With the Houthis still in control of the capital and a large part of the country, few analysts had expected the coalition announcement, and while the Saudi military called it a ceasefire, observers expect the conflict to continue, albeit perhaps at a lower intensity.

“I think it is partially a rebranding and a reframing [by the Saudis],” Adam Baron, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told IRIN, adding that the coalition had at least succeeded in “degrading the capabilities of the Houthis and their allies in the Yemeni military.”

Fears of renewed conflict have already been realised with fresh Saudi-led airstrikes reported on Wednesday on the southwestern city of Taiz and clashes between pro and anti-Houthi forces in the southern port of Aden.

In Taiz, the Houthis took over the base of the 35th military brigade, which had been loyal to Hadi, a witness said. After the takeover, the Saudis then bombed the base, according to local resident Ayman Gamal.

The United Nations said it was hopeful that humanitarian access would improve in the coming days, but aid agencies were still unsure that the security situation allowed for much change.

“We are getting some planes and boats in,” Trond Jensen, head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, told IRIN. “We have just deployed a team to work with the Saudi authorities on a plan to facilitate access. We are positive that this will help.”

Yet, Haajar Maalim, country director at Action Against Hunger (known by its French acronym ACF), said it remained impossible to scale up programming and that ongong violence in Aden and other cities meant it was actually getting harder to get aid in.

“It is still too unclear at the moment, we don’t know what is going to happen,” he told IRIN.

Jensen said there had been little sign of an easing of restrictions on cargo boats, which have been undergoing strict inspections by Saudi warships.

A shortage of fuel, in particular, is having a crippling effect on the humanitarian situation: thousands of medical vaccines were ruined as there was not enough petrol to run the refrigerators to keep them cool.

Maalim said ACF had been forced to use motorbikes rather than cars in an attempt to ration what fuel they did have.

The Saudi Arabian-led campaign has come under criticism for failing to protect civilians, while Oxfam, ACF and a number of other NGOs have had goods destroyed and staff injured by bombs.

Power returned to Sana’a on Wednesday. Many residents had been without it for more than a week. A few hours later it went off again. There was an unusual silence in the city, with no sign of the thousands of residents who have fled returning.